(Roughly) Daily

“I resemble that remark”*…

Swiss linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure articulated the modern version of a belief that dates from Plato, and extended through Locke to modern linguistic scholarship…

… that the letters and words in many writing and language systems have no relationship to what they refer to. The word “cat” doesn’t have anything particularly cat-like about it. The reason that “cat” means cat is because English speakers have decided so—it’s a social convention, not anything ingrained in the letters c-a-t. (According to Saussure, a language like Chinese, where each written character stands for a whole word, was a separate writing system, and his ideas were directed towards writing systems made up of letters or syllables.) 

But new research calls this foundational assumption into question. “The Color Game,” created by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History to study the evolution of language, suggests that there may be a representational relationship after all…

…the idea that words, or other signs, do actually relate to what they’re describing has been gaining ground. This is called iconicity: when a spoken or written word, or a gestured sign, is iconic in some way to what it’s referring to…

… research now suggests that our languages are riddled with iconicity, and that it may play a role in language evolution, and how we learn and process language. Along with this evidence from The Color Game, in the last decade and a half, an increase in cross-cultural studies has re-upped the attention on iconicity, and pushed back against the doctrine of arbitrariness. 

“It is now generally accepted that natural languages feature plenty of non-arbitrary ways to link form and meaning, and that some forms of iconicity are pretty pervasive,” said Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at Radboud University, who said that he too learned in Linguistics 101 that “the sign is arbitrary.” “Iconicity has become impossible to ignore.”…

Iconicity has always been around. One familiar example is onomatopoeias, like “ding-dong,” “chirp,” or “swish”—words that sound like what they’re referring to. Those words aren’t random, they have a direct relationship to what they represent. Yet, onomatopoeias were thought to be the exception to a wholly arbitrary set of signifiers, said Marcus Perlman, a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham. This belief persisted despite hints that other words might have some connection to what they signified…

There could also be iconicity in what the letters themselves look like, and not just the sounds or gestures of words. In 2017, linguists Nora Turoman and Suzy Styles showed people who spoke unfamiliar languages different letters and asked them to guess which made the /i/ sound (“ee” in feet), and which was /u/ (“oo” sound in shoe). The participants were able to do so better than chance just by looking at the shape of the letters…

Language is most likely a mix of arbitrariness and iconicity, Perlman said, along with something called systematicity, when relationships form between words and meaning that aren’t necessarily iconic. (An example is words that start with gl- in English often are related to light, like glisten, glitter, gleam, and glow. There’s nothing necessarily light-like about the sound gl-, but the relationship is still there.)

Morin thinks of iconicity as the “icing on the cake” of language. It makes words more intuitive, more easy to guess. Iconicity might make languages easier to learn; Kim said there’s a saying about Hangul, that: “A wise man can learn it in a morning, and a fool can learn it in the space of ten days.”…  

Rethinking our most fundamental tool, as new research reveals a connection between what words look and sound like, and what they mean: “Why Are Letters Shaped the Way They Are?,” from @shayla__love in @motherboard.

* Curly, in The Three Stooges’ “Idle Roomers

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As we reflect on resemblance, we might spare a thought for a champion of a different sort of mimesis: James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  A well-known theatrical actor, dramatist, producer, and scenic innovator in his time, he is best remembered for his revolutionary contributions to theatrical design.  MacKaye opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes.  MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity.  And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats.  In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

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